It isn’t often we see an audio product take a quantum leap forward like Shure’s KSE1500 headphones. Yes, we realize the phrase “quantum leap” is equal parts tired cliché and nostalgic ‘90s TV show, but it really is the best way to describe what Shure accomplished with its first electrostatic earbuds.
After eight years of toil, trial-and-error, and, we’re guessing, more than a few nights of hair-tearing, teary-eyed lunacy, Shure found a way to micro-size a complex speaker technology and stuff it into a tiny pair of translucent earbuds. The payoff is a headphones system that is among the most accurate we’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, the KSE1500 have some real drawbacks, namely a handcuffed DAC/amplifier, and a whopping $3,000 price tag. Even in the nerdified halls of audiophilia, that’s a gulp-inducing number.
So, Shure went back to work, creating a more affordable version of its electrostatic treasures, the KSE1200SYS, which shave the DAC out of the picture and, in the process, a full $1,000 off the price tag. Yes, at two grand the KSE1200 are still astronomically expensive, but believe us when we say that, for the serious audiophile, these are a bargain.
Electro what now?
Before we get into the fine print of what’s new and different about the KSE1200, it’s worth taking a moment to go over the minor miracle that makes these little earphones tick. Most in-ear monitors employ either balanced armature drivers (tiny tubes wrapped around a voice coil) or dynamic drivers (the piston-like voice coil-and-magnet drivers commonly associated with speakers and headphones).
The electrostat technology created for the KSE1500’s driver system (and utilized in the KSE1200) is not only highly complex, but also extremely difficult to deploy in small spaces. Essentially, each micro-driver consists of a tiny membrane suspended between two miniature plates. The plates are fed static electricity to create variations in the membrane that are then translated (or transduced) into sound waves. It takes a ton of power (relatively) to complete this process, which is why the KSE1500 and KSE1200 are both tied to a dedicated amplifier system — the old audiophiliac ball and chain.
There are, of course, multiple similarities between Shure’s spinoff electrostatic buds and the KSE1500, including the same translucent housings complete with multiple eartip options for the same uber-isolating fit, as well as the same custom-designed, Kevlar-reinforced cable with proprietary six-pin connection. But losing the full DAC/amplifier component does make the KSE1200 less versatile than their predecessors by confining the headphones to the analog realm.
The KSE1200 connect to your source device via an old-fashioned headphone jack, meaning you’ll need something that offers a higher quality signal to get the most out of these shockingly accurate earbuds. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ways to do so these days thanks to an ever-expanding list of affordable, portable hi-fi devices, from Astell & Kern’s AK Jr. ($500), to Fiio’s X3 II ($200 and change), or even hi-fi phones like LG’s V30 and V35. Pretty much any device with some decent hi-fi chops will get the job done well.
As for the new amplifier, it’s hewn-down, aluminum-housed design offers simple elegance, boasting just the headphone jack and earphone connection on top, LEDs to indicate power and input level (red means you’re feeding too much power, green means go), and a silky-smooth volume knob/power switch. On the bottom is a single -10dB pad switch. The smaller setup makes it easier to travel, and Shure also offers a smartphone app with a digital four-band EQ, like what’s offered within the KSE1500’s DAC settings.
Like the KSE1500, the 1200 tout a claimed frequency response of 10Hz-50kHz, with a maximum SPL of 113 dB. Thanks to the dedicated 200 Volt amp, you won’t need to worry about impedance, and the unit packs up to 12 hours of performance per charge. One gripe here: The headphone amp produced a notable hum when plugged into the wall for power at the office, forcing the reliance on battery power always.
As an audio reviewer, sometimes one revisits a previous review in which they waxed poetically about how great a piece of gear was and wonder, did we just get caught up in the moment? Is the product really as good as we thought?
With the KSE1200, any such concerns over our KSE1500 writeup dissolved the very instant we put the earphones in and pressed play. We’re fortunate enough to have listened to more than out fair share of sterling audio gear, so it’s not often that something virtually knocks us out of our seat from the first second. That’s what you’ll get with the KSE1200 from square one. And it’s glorious.
Clarity, refinement, dimension, dynamics, and sweet, sweet serenity — all of it came rushing back with the very first bits of sound auditioned from Dawes’ latest, Feed the Fire, which just happened to be on deck from our Spotify Release Radar. The difference between this experience and a previous listen of the song was night and day in its complexity. The dynamic inflection with the KSE1200 was palpable here, giving a bigger sense of space and expansiveness, realism, and immersion for a live-studio feel.
While the headphones’ sonic talents are among the most impressive we’ve ever encountered, a major component of the experience is their ominous, almost transporting sound isolation, which reaches up to 37 dB of ambient-noise killing solitude. Throughout our listening, we found ourselves constantly frozen (and utterly distracted) when a high-quality recording would whisk us away to its own colorful corner of sounds, textures, and flavors, like the bathroom teleportations in those Calgon commercials from the ‘70s. (Though, we admit “KSE1200, take me away!” just doesn’t have the same ring.)
One such moment came from an old favorite from Ween’s White Pepper, the tropical parody anthem, Bananas and Blow. As the song rolled in, it felt like relaxing in a cabana on a distant island while an impromptu, island-style band serenaded us as a cool breeze lingered. The scrape of the Guiro wasn’t just audible, it was palpable, as if it was resonating next to our right arm, while the twangy guitars rang inside our brain, sunken deep into a chasm of studio sound, as though our skull was a carefully treated control room.
It’s not just music the KSE1200 magnify, either. A quick blurb from Tina Fey’s series 30 Rock had us unexpectedly mesmerized. Normally one might say the dialogue sounded as though it was delivered in person, but it was better than what you get from real conversations. Every movement, click, and flutter of Fey’s lips was gorgeously rendered. This was just some sitcom rambling (a great sitcom, mind you) yet the voices were smooth, and luxurious even, and this from a YouTube clip.
The better the recording, the richer the experience, and in a lot of ways you really don’t know what’s coming in your own library, simply because most headphones don’t have the accuracy and sheer sonic magnification required to understand exactly what’s been recorded. As such, the KSE1200 keep you constantly off guard when bouncing around to different selections — for better, and of course, for worse.
There’s no flinching here; poorer recordings have nowhere to run and, thanks to the impressive sound isolation, no place to hide. The first major indication of this fact came with an outtake from Jason Isbell’s latest album Something More Than Free, in which the track Racetrack Romeo sounded — in comparison to what we’d been hearing — flat, and decidedly mediocre. At the low end of this spectrum, a live recording of Grateful Dead’s Cold Rain and Snow sounded like it had been dug up among Mayan ruins.
The KSE1200 headphones are powerful tools of sonic perception — tools not to be aimed haphazardly or used lightly. And suffice it to say, even at two grand, we’re in love.
The KSE1200SYS come with a two-year limited warranty for parts and products, and a one-year warranty for the battery.
Simply put, Shure’s electrostatic earbuds are the best, most accurate in-ear headphones we’ve ever heard.
Is there a better alternative?
Apart from the KSE1500 (which essentially just add more features and options for more money), there aren’t many headphones worthy of comparison to the KSE1200. When it comes to in-ears, our custom-made Ultimate Ears UE18+ offer a warmer, smoother sound, but they can’t come close to the clarity or precision — and at $1,500, they shouldn’t really be expected to.
We’ll add that we’ve yet to hear Audeze’s iSine LCDi4 planar magnetic earphones (which run $2,500) and we adored the sound of the $500 iSine 20, so they may be worth considering as a rival. Still, the iSine’s open-back design reproduces a completely different sound, and they’re not nearly as easy to wear. There’s really nothing quite like Shure’s Electrostatic buds.
How long will it last?
In some ways, the KSE1200’s dumbed-down analog system may be more future proofed than their digital cousins, though with the continual demise of the headphone jack in phones, you may want to buy a dedicated player. As for build quality, the headphones feel more robust than most headphones in their class and we expect them to last as long as their battery does with proper care.
Should you buy it?
If you’re crazy enough to spend this kind of money on headphones — and you’re looking for headphones as portable as they are transformative — don’t hesitate.